Muslim students have said they would like a formal apology from Vice Chancellor David Richardson following UEA’s decision to close the Islamic Prayer Facility until September.
On Thursday Concrete broke the news that UEA planned to close the prayer spaces by Lecture Theatre 2 in order to build a connection to the Library.
The space will close on Sunday, days before the start of Ramadan.
UEA Islamic Society (ISoc), the SU, and representatives from the university, including Student Support Services and UEA Estates, met on Friday afternoon following a demonstration in the square.
Following this, UEA said that Lecture Theatre 2 will “become available to Muslim students again from the beginning of the new academic year.”
A spokesperson from UEA ISoc said they were “moderately satisfied with the progress [made] through negotiations.”
However, they added that “much more needs to be done to make us feel welcome again at UEA.”
They said: “We are yet to receive written confirmation about concessions, and an apology from the university for the additional stress they have caused to Muslim students preparing for exams on the eve of Ramadan. This has been an incredibly distressing process, but we are hopeful that Muslim students will never have to face this again.”
SU Welfare and Community Diversity Officer Jo Swo told Concrete the university agreed to provide emergency Islamic prayer facilities. Union House bookable rooms have been assigned as prayer facilities for use on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday.
She said that “whilst this is no substitute for early and appropriate consultation” the SU were “pleased to report some movement” after “a positive meeting with university officials.”
Ms Swo told Concrete that UEA now “accepts that the Multi Faith centre is not a suitable space, and in the long term has made clear that it intends to incorporate the requirement for a permanent home for a university Islamic prayer centre into its strategic space planning.”
She added the university “made clear that consultation with Muslim student representatives, the Students’ Union, the Multifaith Centre and the Muslim chaplain” would take place “before further changes are made.”
However, she said that UEA Muslim students are “still awaiting a formal apology for the anxiety, distress and discrimination” experienced “as a result” of the university’s actions.
A UEA spokesperson said: “The Blackdale main hall will also continue to be available to Muslim students during the evenings but will not be available for Friday prayers for one month while exams take place. As a result, during this period, space will be identified by the University for Muslim students for Friday prayers.”
“Once the exams are over the Blackdale main hall will be available again for Friday prayers and a working group has already been established to consider longer-term solutions.”
The university said they have been in discussions with the Muslim Chaplain “since late 2016 and regrets any apparent breakdown in communications.”
However, Haroon Razmandeh, a first year Medicine student and President for UEA Islamic society for 2017/8, previously told Concrete: “Our Chaplain suggested we move the Thursday socials to the Multi-Faith Centre, because he thought it might be a good idea. They twisted his words and said our Chaplain proposed that the whole prayer room should move and that’s why they said it’s going to be completely abolished as well.”
Over 150 of UEA’s Muslim community were joined by supporters on Friday for ‘Prayer in the Square’ to protest against the planned demolition and UEA’s lack of communication to Muslim students.
Head Sister of the UEA Islamic Society (ISoc), Lipa Lucky, said afterwards: “I’m so pleased and happy and overwhelmed with the amount of support that we have. It shows how united we are as a university, that everyone stands for each other and that this action that’s been taken by the university is not acceptable. No student accepts it, Muslim or non-Muslim and henceforth things look positive and we are hopeful for a prayer facility that accommodates for Muslims.”
Clive Lewis, Labour’s parliamentary candidate for Norwich South, told Concrete that the pastoral care of students is paramount and that for Muslim students “having a prayer room is a critical part.”
He stated: “It’s about respect. And when you take into account what’s happening with the closing down of the counselling course here at UEA, the closing down of the prayer facilities – you begin to build up a picture that the university sees students more as cash cows.”
Mr Lewis went on to commend UEA students, saying the “show of solidarity has been absolutely fantastic.”
A spokesperson from UEA ISoc told Concrete: “We want to thank everyone, Muslims and non-Muslims alike, who came out to show support for our cause. Having you by our side gives us strength, when we have needed it most.”
UEA said the temporary closure of the Islamic Prayer Facility is part of “a £2 million investment in new library study spaces and the complete refurbishment of the University’s main lecture theatres.”
They added: “Extensive construction work in the university’s main lecture theatre block involves new seating with integral writing surfaces, improved acoustics, improved air handling, increasing the seating capacity of the lecture theatres, redecoration. In the library, work involves moving rolling stock to increase study spaces.”
A spokesperson for the VC said that whilst the university “does regret the communication breakdown with the Muslim chaplain” it was not the fault of the VC, who is “not involved in the provision of faith services.”
Additional reporting by Tony Allen.